Marshallese Traditional Adoptions

The Marshallese have a long tradition of adoption and do not have the associated negative stigma that other cultures have towards adoption.

Historically, adoption in the Marshall Islands was restricted among the family or clan, with clan membership determined by the mothers side of the family.  Adoption was  viewed as an acceptable method to re-distribute people within the extended clan relative to available resources and of incorporating outsiders into relationships for the purpose of exchanging resources.  Adoption functioned in the society to address issues of family size, inheritance and sterility as well as conferring status on birth parents.  For example, adoption usually took place for the benefit of the birth parents who were too young to provide adequately for the child or who already had too many children. Adoption outside of the clan was seldom permitted except as a means to bring new resources to a clan. These adoptions could help the clan with economic mobility, community solidarity or formation of socio-political alliances between competing clans.  Acquiring resources via adoption was much better than the alternative, waging war.

Within Marshallese households, the prevalence that one or more children where adopted or fostered was as high as 70%. Traditional Marshallese  adoptions usually allowed the birth parents to continue to have relationships with their biological children.  The biological connection to the child was known throughout the community and no stigma was attached.   Unlike American adoption, traditional adoptions in the Marshalls involve additional sets of parents, rather than the exchange of parents.   Adoption does not tear families apart it builds them.  The sharing of the child by more than two parents was consider advantageous to the child.  Although there was no culturally approved method to force a parent to choose adoption, it was not customary to deny an adoption request by a senior family member.   Often maternal grandparents would adopt their first born grandchild and this child was considered lucky.   When a child was older (eg, age 18) he or she may feel free to return to the birth parents if they were willing.


  • Jorban, Jack.  (2004).   Baby Business for Agencies?  Adoption in the Marshall Islands. In A. Lieom-Loeak,, V. C. Kiluwe, & L. Crowl (Eds.),   Life in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (pp. 57-71).  Majuro: University of the South Pacific Centre.
  • Walsh, J.M. (1999).  Adoption and Agency: American Adoption of Marshallese Children.  27 pp.